Ethan Church posed

Avery County native Ethan Church recently underwent a pioneering surgical procedure in Atlanta to address bleeding from cavernous malformations in the brain.

ATLANTA — A local man underwent a pioneering surgery on October 3 for an uncommon progression of a relatively common disease.

Ethan Church, 27, son of John and Kim Church of Beech Mountain, has cavernous malformations, an issue involving abnormal blood vessels in the brain. However, the malformations often cause no symptoms.

For some, bleeding from the malformations can cause serious neurological symptoms. In Church’s case, the malformations bled near the brain stem.

Church began working at a hotel in Glacier National Park in Montana in May of this year. Church, an avid outdoorsmen, has worked at five national parks.

On Aug. 27, Church began experiencing weakness in his left arm and a headache and was taken to a local hospital in Montana. The diagnosis at the time was a migraine. He was given some pain medication and sent on his way, but his symptoms persisted through the next day but with an additional symptom of blurred vision.

He returned to the hospital and underwent a CT scan revealing Ethan’s malformations had bled. At this point Church was flown to Kalispell Regional Medical Center. An MRI at that facility confirmed the bleed while his symptoms worsened to double vision and partial paralysis. He stayed at Kalispell for nine days.

Doctors at Kalispell advised the blood would absorb into Church’s brain and the symptoms would fade, though he would require inpatient rehabilitation. He was transferred to Care Partners in Asheville on Sept. 6 where he struggled with physical therapy because of his symptoms.

On Sept. 13 his condition worsened and he was transferred to Mission Hospital in Asheville. Another CT scan confirmed the same malformation was bleeding, at which point he was transferred to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a hospital renowned for its neurosurgery program.

Doctors at Emory did not want to perform surgery to remove the malformation because of the location at the back of Church’s skull, believing once again the blood would be absorbed and his symptoms would improve. He was returned to Care Partners on Sept. 20. On Sept. 26 his symptoms began to worsen again and on Sept. 28 he had to be placed on a ventilator and a feeding tube after being diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia.

On Oct. 1 he was transferred back to Emory. Another CT showed the malformation had bled again.

Nelson Oyesiku, a neurosurgeon who specializes in the removal of pituitary tumors, performed the surgery to remove the malformation by passing through Church’s nose and to the back of his skull during a lengthy surgical procedure on Oct. 3.

In total, there were 10 physicians present for the surgery.

The surgery took nine hours and Church’s mother, Kim, said he was given a 50/50 chance to survive the procedure. Church did survive, the malformation was removed and he is beginning the recovery process. In the days following the surgery Ethan has been improving, though the process of getting off the ventilator has been slow.

Kim said one of the doctors noted that it was the most amazing surgery she had ever witnessed.

“I told Ethan, ‘I’m sure you’re in the record book,’” Kim said. Oyesiku had never performed the procedure before.

Kim added that the entire ordeal has been unreal.

“He loves being outside, he loves to hike, he loves to climb rocks,” Kim said of her son. “Healthy as he could be.”

Before the surgery, Church wrote on a dry erase board the phrases “God is with me” and “peaceful.”

Kim said she is thankful for how far he has come, and that every small improvement is huge. She also expressed immense appreciation to everyone for their thoughts, prayers and support.

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